Friday, 21 January 2011

Valley of the Giants, Western Australia

Driving south from Denham to Denmark took remarkably longer than we anticipated, thanks to traffic congestion, windy roads, the ever-present threat of suicidal kangaroos, and misguidance from the world's worst GPS unit. This was a real shame, because some of the country that we were tensely racing through, in an effort to get to our accommodations before closing time, was incredibly lovely. The further south we drove, the more lush the habitat became, with rolling hills and patches of forest and meadows with ibis grazing alongside the cows; this was certainly not the arid Australia that you have seen painted in earth tones in movies such as Crocodile Dundee or Australia. We passed through some incredibly quaint towns, the likes of which you might almost expect to find in New England--old-fashioned looking main streets with stylish boutiques and restaurant/cafes. This unexpected bit of country chic derives from the fact that this region is part of Australia's wine country and therefore entertains visiting yuppies who come for holidays consisting of fine drinking and dining and a couple nights in posh country cabins. I only wish we'd had more time to browse the shops and have a snack, because it all looked quite enjoyable.

As a consolation prize, however, we received an incredible celestial show while driving through a rather open part of the landscape. Just before diving into the forest for good, we caught side of the moon rising over a distant ridge. It was unbelievably huge, clear, and intensely bright. I would have taken a picture except that it's the kind of view that never translates well into a photograph--the best kind of souvenir, since it's irreplaceable.

In the end, we didn't make it to the Nornalup Riverside Chalets office before its owners went out for a night of dancing, but they were kind enough to leave our key in the door so we could let ourselves in. At the end of a long day of driving, our chalet was quite a nice find:

(My husband outside the cabin on the day of our departure.)

The refrigerator and pantry had been stocked with tea supplies so we could have a nice relaxing drink after arriving; we'd brought leftover food with us from Denham, so we didn't need to worry about cooking. Perhaps more importantly, the bathroom featured a jacuzzi-style tub so that I could have a nice bubble bath. The best feature was the wall of sliding-glass doors leading onto our patio; not too exciting at night, but in the morning I was able to draw back the curtains and watch all the birds from our lawn down to the river at the foot of the slope in front of the chalet:

(Our lawn, leading down to a small garden and the Frankland River.)

Lots of interesting avifauna pranced about in our yard, and I barely had to work to add several new species to the trip list, including waterfowl, songbirds, and parrots.

Just as we were preparing to make our way out to the main local attraction--the Treetop Walk, the whole reason I had wanted to visit--we experienced a sudden downpour. However, we were on a tight schedule and were determined to see the sights while we could, so we donned our rain gear to brave the weather. While I was waiting for my husband to get ready, I spied the namesake of our chalet ("The Blue Wren") flitting about the flowering bushes just outside our door--a male splendid fairy wren, soon joined by his female:

(A male splendid fairy wren, photograph courtesy of

I was so excited and enthralled that I didn't even think of grabbing my camera; fairy wrens are famous amongst behavioral ecologists, as well as being such delightfully attractive birds that even the least ornithologically-inclined person would have to coo a little at the sight of them. I later bought a fairy wren bookmark so I could commemorate the event.

After I recovered from the excitement of the fairy wren sighting, we took off for our adventure in the nearby tingle tree forest, where a series of platforms had been erected so that visitors could enjoy the wildlife without stomping on the trees' sensitive roots:

(The Treetop Walk, as seen from the treetops.)

I had been anticipating this particular trip since reading Bill Bryson's account of the attraction, but the minute I started walking up the ramp into the tree canopy, I began to feel incredibly nervous. The whole framework vibrated with every footstep I took, and I was aware of the slight swaying of the boardwalk as I moved. The warning signs didn't make me feel any better, either, though I knew I was just being overly-sensitive:

(I spent the entire time counting the other people near me, and moving along at a precision pace designed to maintain my distance from other visitors.)

However, as our Jurien Bay landlady had said, the platforms had been perfectly safe for many years prior to our visit, so there was no reason to think that they would collapse on the very day we happened to be walking on them. All the same, I was feeling a bit too vertiginous to fully enjoy myself, which was a shame because it really was a unique experience. At least my husband had the pleasure of recording some video footage of me looking green about the gills, and subsequently showing it to everyone to prove what a big baby I can be:

(Documenting my white-knuckled approach to creeping along the walkway while gripping both railings simultaneously--as though that would make any difference if the platform actually did collapse...)

Once we'd finished walking in the canopy, we also got the chance to trek around on the forest floor, still on an elevated boardwalk. We could poke our heads into the trunks of the tingle trees, which go hollow after many years as a result of insects, humidity, and sometimes fire/lightning; it is the massive, incredibly strong roots that keep the huge trees standing despite their top-heaviness. I have never been to California to experience the redwoods, but standing in the tingle tree forest was a pretty good start.

(Me, enjoying the view inside the base of a hollowed-out tingle tree.)

By the time we'd done with our tour, the weather had begun to improve enough that we could consider renting a canoe from our landlords in order to paddle up the Frankland River. In fact, by the time we hit the water, the sun was actually poking its head out of the clouds and causing us to work up a bit of a sweat as we wielded our paddles. Or, should I say, as my husband wielded his paddle--despite my experience kayaking, I'm a pretty terrible canoeist, and I seem to do more harm than good in terms of affecting our trajectory, so I was limited to only the occasional paddle and instead spent most of my time looking for bird life. This gave me the opportunity to spy some impressive cockatoos hiding in the trees, which is much more fun than paddling, anyway.

(Sunset on the Frankland River--not a bad view.)

After we returned to the chalet and stowed the canoe, we spied kookaburras stationed in our front yard. All the locals told us what a pest species the kookaburra was, since the birds were quite happy to live near humans, and were so successful that they pushed other species out. Regardless, I found them pretty interesting to watch, and soon my husband and I were both entranced by the sight of a family of five of the giant kingfishers dive-bombing the lawn in order to catch subterranean insects. While a couple of them preferred to hunt from perches, like "normal" kingfishers, several others stood on the ground with cocked heads, just like American robins, listening for sounds of movement and then doing dramatic little hop-dives in order to plunge their bills under the soil to grab prey.

The following morning we had to take off fairly early in order to begin the long drive back up to Perth to drop off the car and check in for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology conference. There isn't too much to report about the remainder of our trip, which was spent being nerdy (and, in my case, contracting a stomach bug, as per usual when I am traveling). However, I should say that Perth seemed like a remarkably clean and safe city, such that none of us felt uncomfortable going out for dinner and drinks after dark. There was also a lovely shopping area several blocks away from the conference center, where I went to pick up some groceries and buy some native-made souvenirs for friends and family back home. We located this area on our first night in town as we traipsed about looking for place to eat. Imagine our surprise to find a little bit of home in the middle of this distant city halfway around the world:

(My husband poses under an English shield at Perth's London Court.)

There was also a huge staircase leading from the sidewalk near our hotel up into King's Park; this was called Jacob's Ladder, and was reminiscent of the massive, similarly-named staircase back home in Falmouth. Unlike Falmouth, however, Perth featured an interesting restaurant called "The Greenhouse," which, as you can see, is a very apt title:

(The Greenhouse was, literally, a "green house," in multiple senses. I'd hate to be the horticulturalist responsible for taking care of the plants at the top of the wall!)

As attractive and interesting as we found Western Australia and its inhabitants, we were still happy to head home after three weeks away. It wasn't easy to leave all that sunshine and warm weather, though, in order to return to cool breezes and rain. Now we just have to find another excuse (or just the time and money) to return and explore the remaining 99% of Australia that we didn't even touch!

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